South Korea Maritime Disaster: Old World Problem in the 21st Century

On April 16, 2014, the Sewol Ferry began to sink approximately 9 a.m. local time when traveling around Jindo Island on its journey from Incheon to the island of Jeju. The ferry had 476 passengers, including many high school students on a field trip. Only 174 passengers have been rescued and 171 have been confirmed dead. The remaining passengers are feared dead. 

Maritime disasters occur with less frequency than other forms of travel such as automobiles and trains, but more frequently than aeronautical disasters.  However, many ships involved in public health emergencies involve civilian passengers who have little or no preparation for a submersion event. In addition, since maritime disasters are occurring more infrequently, the personnel on ships have little familiarity with disaster protocols or plans.  Reports from staff on the Sewol highlight the lack of knowledge about basic evacuation protocols and priorities to direct most vulnerable populations, such as children and elderly, to lifeboats.  The largest procedural and ethical, and possibly legal, breach was the captain’s departure from the ship while passengers were still on board.

Critical findings:

  • Commercial ships with large civilian populations need more stringent legal regulations and oversight regarding regular evacuation drills.
  • Common forms of communications, such as cell phones and wi-fi enabled devices, will not be available during a maritime disaster, and communications will be a severe challenge.
  • Often a multilateral government response will be required since ships will be traveling paths that near various international territories.




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